Thursday, May 26, 2011

Memphis Blues, Not Blue

So about a month ago, a coworker came into my office and queried, “Wanna go to Memphis?”
My initial reply was, why? To which he explained that he was scheduled to give a presentation at a bus conference but had a conflict with his annual vacation to Ireland. Well, after pulling a couple of strings and a rearrangement of schedules, I found myself on a Delta flight this past Monday, heading to the Land of Elvis, filling on for my coworker.
I have to admit that I was not expecting much. My main curiosity was to watch the March of the Ducks at the Peabody Hotel where I was staying, maybe catch up on some sleep. As well I was feeling like that poor stepchild, having recently received an email from my nephew describing his trip to Spain and sleeping in a 15th century castle, and my aforementioned coworker off to trace his family roots in Ireland.
I get freekin’ Memphis.
Whatever. Make the most of it, I said to self. So I get there Monday night with a scheduled meet ‘n greet at B.B. King’s on Beale Street. Great time - open bar, buffet of barbecue. And lemme tell you something right now - your choices of food in Memphis are barbecue and barbecue. But, with such a limited repertoire, I can tell you they do a helluva barbecue. Get any of that in Spain, nephew? And of course, lots of music. Blues. To repeat - Da Bluuuuuuuze. Memphis is renowned for the blues. They also claim to be the home of rock & roll, thanks to a lad that was born in nearby Tupelo, Mississippi who made a few records in Memphis.
Elvis may be The King, but the blues is king in Memphis. Mississippi delta backwater bayou, roll up your pants & stomp on the muck blues compliments of Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson. Gospel-tinged soul blues compliments of Dusty Springfield (she recorded there). Gritty, house-band blues compliments of Booker T & The MG’s. And home to more bands and performers you have never heard of but can blow the roof off of any honky tonk on either side of the big river that separates Memphis from Arkansas.
After enjoying my time at B.B. King’s, I took a stroll down Beale. Now like most towns, Memphis has its share of panhandlers, but at least in Memphis they’re creative. One guy challenged me to a sing-off for five bucks. Another was hawking CD’s of an apparent Memphis legend by the name of Big Jerry. Never heard of him. I stepped into one bar and there was a very large black man sitting in a chair onstage with sunglasses on, bobbing his head back and forth in time to the accompanying slide guitar and harmonica - on cue he would belt out the same lyrics - “People always ask me why I sing the blues….I tell them Lawd cuz I done paid my dues…” His name is Blind Mississippi Morris. That's him in the pic below.
A couple of blocks down the blues of Blind Mississippi Morris faded, taken over by the unmistakable twang of the voice of Johnny Cash. Stepping into the club, there was an old skinny white guy belting out ‘A Boy Named Sue’ replete with a running commentary that would make The Man in Black proud. Further down, near the barricades marking the end of the tourist section of Beale (and if that didn’t clue you in not to go any further, three Memphis police cars stationed there pretty much did the trick), another sound took the air - a harmonica backed by a slide guitar & organ, belting out ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’.
What a fun place.
And I can tell you, as I turned around and started heading back the other direction up Beale towards the river, the amalgam/alchemy of these sounds defined the place. And then I looked down. I wasn’t walking anymore. Instead it was more of a skip to the music, a lightness in my feet as I enveloped the atmosphere.
I was walking in Memphis. With my feet ten feet off of Beale.
Thanks a lot, Marc Cohn.

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